At the end of EgoPo Classic Theater’s Nocturne, I realized I may have forgotten how to clap. I also think I am not alone in this.
After a recent performance of the decidedly-too-modern-to-be-“classic” play by Adam Rapp, when the EgoPo cast—a full cast!—took the stage for their final bows, the carefully distanced, fully masked audience began to applaud. And it was jarring, hearing that sound live again. It was arrhythmic and scattered, fading in and out as people clearly unused to clapping anymore stopped to rest their hands briefly, and then started again.
It was awkward, but at the same time, it came as a release after 14 months and counting deprived of experiences such as these. And it was a release after the heavy subject matter of the show.
Unlike most theater events available to Philadelphians over the past year, EgoPo’s Nocturne is performed in person and in real time, for an audience of many. (The company’s last production, the arresting Rockaby, was performed live, but by one performer and for an audience of one.) Nocturne ticketholders drive to an empty parking lot in North Philadelphia and follow instructions to pull into a horseshoe shape in the lot, then tune our car radios to a specific FM channel to hear the performers and listen for sound cues indicating we should turn our headlights on or off, illuminating the performance we’re about to watch.
It turns out that the inside of a car is both the most perfect and the most painful place to watch the events of Nocturne unfold. Cars—well, a car—are central to the story. The unnamed narrator/protagonist (Walter DeShields) explains that as a teenager, he was involved in a single-vehicle car accident that had devastating consequences, not just for him, but for his family.
Though the other performers in the show do have spoken lines, it’s DeShields’s narrator who serves as the play’s central figure, starting with the illuminating gut punch of his opening lines. We see him years before the accident, and years after, as well as the moment of impact and its immediate consequences. A family torn apart—the shattered son, the grieving father (Damien J. Wallace, whose final moments in the play bring much-needed healing to its denouement), the mother who falls into a dark despair (Kirsten Quinn), and the young sister whose innocence was lost in a moment. Emilia Weiss, a real-life sophomore at Rowan University, channels all of the enthusiasm and contradictions of a nine-year-old girl, and her monologue is one of the highlights of the show.
Hallmarks of a classic
EgoPo has never shied away from the heavy, the distressing, the dark. (The company’s first production in Philadelphia was Spring Awakening, and I think we all know how that one ends.) In that way, Nocturne, despite being a 21st-century play, fits perfectly into the company’s oeuvre. Under the direction of EgoPo founder Lane Savadove, it has all the hallmarks of a Greek tragedy, emphasized by the harsh lighting of automobile headlights and high-powered handheld flashlights and the stark outdoor setting.
A moveable yet sturdy-looking set from lighting and set designer Dirk Durossette, props by Dane Eissler, costumes by Natalia de la Torre, and sound by Chris Sannino all help deliver on Savadove’s vision, which evokes the feeling that this play has always been there, in the same way it seems like Oedipus and Orestia and Antigone have always been. There is mimesis and there is catharsis and there is a sense of permanent ephemerality or ephemeral permanence—I’m not sure which.
But the mimesis and catharsis do not happen in the play alone, but also in the audience. For the first hour, we sit separated in our cars, together but not really together.
In the final 15 minutes, we leave our cars and head across the parking lot to sit or stand and watch the play’s final scene. We’re distanced, but no longer separated from each other by metal and glass. Watching a play live, with an audience, for the first time in more than a year. At the show I attended, it didn’t matter that we’d all clearly forgotten how to clap. We were in that moment—together.
Image description: A photo from a performance of Nocturne. Actors Emilia Weiss and Walter DeShields stand in a parking lot at night, facing a bright light, their backs to the camera.
What, When, Where
Nocturne. By Adam Rapp. Directed by Lane Savadove. Through May 9, 2021, in a parking lot near Reyburn Park in North Philadelphia (location provided on ticket purchase). www.egopo.org.
Venue is accessible by private vehicle only, and audiences also must travel a short distance on uneven ground outside of their cars. Performances are subject to weather and start time is determined by sunset.